2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Gabriel’s Gully, near Lawrence Township, in May 1861. The gully was named after Gabriel Read (1824–94), an Australian prospector who had already worked in the goldfields of Victoria and California before unearthing the precious metal in Otago.

This exhibition commemorates Read’s discovery, and explores what life was like in 1860s Dunedin – a city built on the proceeds from the goldfields – through a combination of books, manuscripts and objects from the Heritage Collections and Otago Settlers Museum.

Prior to 1861, Dunedin was a small town with a population of under 2,000 people. The sparseness of Dunedin is evident in two photographs taken by Walter Mantell in 1860 and 1861. The discovery of gold, however, changed the face of Dunedin.

Among the items highlighting Read’s discovery are an early photograph of the goldfields accompanied by a hand drawn key, a contemporary transcription from Read’s diary commenting on his finding, and a hand-drawn map, or ‘miner’s guide’, of the goldfields by John (Jock) Graham, whose bugle is also on display.

Read’s discovery touched off the Central Otago gold rush and led to a population explosion. By 1865, Dunedin’s population had trebled and the town became New Zealand’s largest and wealthiest urban city by the end of the decade, with a population of approximately 15,000.

One such new émigré was William Turnbull Smith from Scotland, who arrived in 1862. His diary provides insight into not only the journey, but also the trials and hardships of life in a new land. The influx of people and goods became so great, that sixty-five ships were once counted in Otago Harbour on a single day.

One such ship, the ‘Alexandrina’ sailing from London, arrived in Port Chalmers in late 1866. Its voyage and account of life in Port Chalmers was recorded in the diary of crewman, William Edeson, displayed in the section themed ‘Transportation’.

Dunedin’s new found wealth created many opportunities for business ventures. November 1861 saw the first issue of the Otago Daily Times come off the press as New Zealand’s first daily newspaper.

Five months later, in April 1862, plans to lay a telegraph line from Dunedin to Port Chalmers were drawn up, as outlined in the surveyor’s hand-drawn map. Three original deeds written on vellum and the transaction book of James Adam, which records land purchases for road clearances, highlight the drive to purchase and work the land for business and development.

Wealth, of course, has its grittier side. Prior to 1861, less than ten public houses were counted in Dunedin. This number rose to more than one hundred by 1865, and publicans ran attractive ads in Harnett’s Directory in the hopes of attracting residents and visitors alike away from their competitors.

1862 saw the establishment of the popular and notorious Vauxhall Pleasure and Tea Gardens, which gained a reputation as a place for excessive drinking and prostitution. Clapboard theatres appeared in Stafford Street, and must have been rowdy venues as miners and other labourers crowded into the cramped spaces.

If Dunedin’s mercantile side flourished during the 1860s, so did its spiritual side. The city was, after all, founded by members of the Free Church of Scotland. St Paul’s and St. Joseph’s cathedrals were both established as churches in 1862, and construction of R. A. Lawson’s Gothic-style First Church began in 1867.

Miners unable to attend church in town could hear the sermons of lay preachers and missionaries from a variety of Christian denominations, who visited the goldfields on Sundays, many preaching from atop overturned boxes. Small, portable hymnbooks, similar to the two on display, one of which was printed in Auckland in 1865, were counted among the personal effects of the goldfield miners.

The more than thirty-five items on display do well to highlight the three themes of ‘Guts, God & Gold’. It took ‘guts’ to board a ship bound for Dunedin. Leaving London, for instance, meant an arduous three-month journey at sea to start life anew.

The construction of a myriad of churches during this decade expanded the word of God and remain at Dunedin’s spiritual heart; and lastly, but most importantly, it was the discovery of gold that allowed the immigrants, merchants, bankers and miners, to change an infant town into a thriving and vibrant city.

Exhibition Catalogue

A .PDF of the exhibition catalogue is available for download (2.4Mb) from this website.

  • Guts, God & Gold: Dunedin in the 1860's
  • 18 March 2011 to 12 June 2011
  • Reed Gallery, Third Floor, City Library
  • FREE


This exhibition was jointly curated by a number of Heritage Collections staff:

  • Lorraine Johnston, Heritage Librarian (Social history)
  • Anthony Tedeschi, Rare Books Librarian (Early Dunedin and the discovery of gold)
  • Malcolm Deans, Senior Library Assistant (Deeds and Otago Daily Times)
  • Cheryl Hamblyn, Senior Library Assistant (Communication)
  • Jackie McMillan, Senior Library Assistant (Religious aspects)
  • Delyth Sunley, Senior Library Assistant (Transportation)

The Library wishes to express its sincerest thanks to the Otago Settlers Museum for the loaning of material from its collection to this exhibition.

Related Video

Video coverage from the official opening of the exhibition.